Europe’s Mars rover is to be sent from France to Italy for a minor repair.
The vehicle, which is currently undergoing final preparations in Cannes prior to a summer launch, has developed a small problem with its solar panels.
The thin array of photo cells that will supply the “Rosalind Franklin” robot with power during its mission has come unstuck in some areas.
It’s not considered a serious problem and can be fixed easily. But it means the rover must be shipped to Turin.
Ordinarily, just the solar panels themselves might be transferred for the repair but because the rover has to be kept super-clean if it’s to search for life on Mars – the whole vehicle structure must be moved intact.
Pulling the complex machine apart at this stage risks introducing contamination that could, at a later date, interfere with its science investigations.
It’s not clear at the time of writing precisely when the move will take place.
Rosalind Franklin, also known by its codename ExoMars, is a joint venture of the European and Russian space agencies (Esa and Roscosmos).
Various companies and institutions have been contracted to contribute pieces of hardware under the leadership of the Franco-Italian aerospace outfit Thales Alenia Space.
It is TAS that will be moving the rover from its Cannes factory to one in Turin where the repair will be carried out.
The delamination of the cells from the underlying carbon-fibre board has occurred close to the hinges that will be used to fold the arrays during the journey to Mars.
The defect was noticed in both the rover test model and the “flight model” (the version of the robot that actually goes to Mars) after they emerged from thermal-vacuum testing.
This is the process in which hardware is put in a chamber and confronted with the kinds of swings in temperature it will likely experience during a space mission.
The fix will now involve screwing down the delaminated area. Rosalind Franklin is well within its mass target, so engineers are unconcerned about resorting to a heavier solution than glue.
Although not a major issue, the solar array defect is a headache that this project could have done without.
Officials are in the process of trying to corral the final phases of preparation against the background of a ticking clock.
Opportunities to go to Mars come around only once every 26 months when the planets are favourably aligned. This means Rosalind Franklin has to leave Earth in a narrow window in July/August this summer or skip to the next launch possibility in 2022.
The heads of the agencies, Esa’s Jan Wörner and Roscosmos’s Dmitry Rogozin, announced on Monday that they would hold a joint press conference in Moscow on 12 March to give a status update.
All the hardware required to send Rosalind Franklin to Mars and land it gently on the surface is built, but there is still a long list of checks that need to be gone through before anything can be put atop a rocket.
This list includes some final stand-out tests on the parachutes and the retro-rockets that will lower the robot to its touchdown location on the Oxia plain at Mars’ equator.
There is also the general compatibility and fit-checks of the various elements that will comprise what some describe as the “Russian doll” stack.
This refers to the rover and its landing platform, which together fit inside a capsule, which is then attached to a “cruise stage” – the spacecraft that shepherds everything to the Red Planet.
To give one example of the checks that must be completed: the cruise stage spins for stability in flight. The rover and platform inside their capsule therefore have to be balanced carefully, just like a car tyre, to ensure there is no disruptive wobble.
If all goes to plan, Rosalind Franklin should land on the Red Planet in March 2021. It is being equipped with instruments and a drill to search for signs of life – in the present day or in the distant past.
It is one of four Mars missions targeting the July/August launch window. The others are being prepared in the US, the UAE and China.
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